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Gitara Gasy

Bouboul himself started learning violin at the age 8, taught by his uncle. At 12 he started learning keyboard at the school of music in Ambatonakanga and at 18 became the organ player of Andohalo Cathedral. The money the priests gave him was so small that he left to work in a music shop and so got access to instruments and gained experience of trumpet (playing to Miles Davis records!) and jazz saxophone. He worked with Odiam Rakoto who played variété in a night club.

Etienne 'Bouboul' Ramboatiana
Photo: Ian Anderson
Etienne 'Bouboul' Ramboatiana

"So I got experiences from the church, some folklore and traditional stuff from Odiam Rakoto and some jazz, and I started to play for dancing. I also began to play guitar. I really liked it. It suited my character, so I approached a priest to give me some advice. Later on, when we played tango with accordeon and guitar for dancing in night clubs, I was the first to own an electric guitar in Antananarivo in 1952. It was a Steamer. Because I worked at the instrument shop, I ordered it from a catalogue just for curiosity. So I started to play the electric guitar with Naly Rakotofiringa. All those albums of 78s, with the Ramamy Malagasy boys, the first ever recording of electric guitars."

One day an American impresario, who was looking for musicians from around the world to work in a circus, noticed him in an hotel. "He proposed for me and my wife to work in Maputo first. We had never been out of Antananarivo then. My big adventure started. He said he liked my colour and he wanted me to both play and arrange the music for the circus. He gave my wife a job placing people and selling the tickets. It was a big discussion amongst the members of our family, it was a big problem. They refused us to go. It was too new an idea. But we went anyway."

"We arrived in Mombasa. Then Maputo. The circus was a majority of Brazilian people with some Germans - a new family life. It was very interesting and I really liked it but it was not a normal life! We toured all over Africa and India, from 1958 to1965. I saw a lot of things and I gained a lot of experiences so I wanted to give that back to people. I started music teaching."

How did Malagasy guitar styles evolve?

"Well, as we all know, the guitar is a foreign instrument but in the time of Ranavalona III [the last Queen of Madagascar, exiled by the French in 1897], the guitar, viola, 'flûte traversière' and mandolin all arrived together. The vazaha played those instruments and people just watched. We realised that the guitar was only an accompaniment to the mandolin. So the Malagasy wanted the guitar to be independent. We wanted it to sing a song not to only accompany. The Malagasy sang in harmony a lot, with breathing technique and lots of melodies, so we wanted the guitar to do all these. The Malagasy guitar style was born!"

This feature first appeared in fRoots 178, April 1998


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